The Electronic Manifestation of Persian Thought
"That video is all over the place. Where did it originate from?" "I guess someone first shared the link in Goder." "How about the Ferfers? They have a niche in finding stuff like that!" "I guess this time they were not fast enough!"
This conversation does not take place in one of Gulliver's travels. In fact you cannot find any piece of relevant information if look for either Goder or Ferfer in Google or Wikipedia. At least that is the case if you try to look them up as English words.
Welcome to the Persian blogosphere; the digital world in which people become political activists, fall in love, and create their own culture and language, all when they are sipping hot tea and punching keys on their keyboard.
Key elements of the Persian blogosphere
This is a short introduction to the world of Persian bloggers and their daily use of the tools. This, therefore, is not an outline of events and names. Bloggers have emerged, they have started new projects and many of them have eventually shifted their attention to another endeavour or have retired for different reasons. From the onset of the Weblogestan, as the inhabitants of the Persian blogosphere tend to call it, different players have come to the stage and have faded away. This is the story of their achievement: how eight years after Salman Jarriri's first Persian blog post no one exactly knows how many Persian blogs there are.
Taking this journey, some of the key elements of the Persian blogosphere will be itemized and briefly discussed. The aim of this piece is to give the reader an understanding of how the Persian blogosphere works, what different layers it consists of, and what characteristics its major players posses.
In his famous book, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," Eric Raymond identifies the open-source community as a gift culture. In contrast to command hierarchies and exchange economies, the members of a gift culture thrive on giving. This can be also a justifiable model for the Persian blogosphere. The fact is, there is no decent report about any Persian blogger having been able to collect any noticeable income through their blogs. There are indeed bloggers who have started a career in journalism, a good number of whom were first known through their blogs. But as is the case with freelance programmers, Persian blogging per se has not been a source of income yet.
This is in accordance with the fact that many bloggers cite personal interest in discussion and community-building as their main reason for blogging. Bloggers attain popularity when they produce good quality content and this seems to be the primary market model in Weblogestan.
There is another resemblance between the Persian blogosphere and the world of open-source software development, as it is described by Raymond. The Persian blogosphere is also a bazaar, in that it does not follow a central design. In fact, different parts of greater Weblogestan follow different content production routines. This is more evident if activities on Facebook, Friendfeed, and Google Reader are also considered as blogging. The lack of one or a number of central organizers could in fact be considered a very important factor in the survival of the Persian blogosphere; it disables the major forces which push for the restructuring of the Persian blogosphere into a "safe" zone.
Content in the Persian blogosphere is mostly text, commonly accompanied by images. There are indeed cases in which the accompanying images are a part of the message. For example, a blog broke the story that a number of voting boxes had been spotted in the basement of a library. That post contained a number of pictures taken in the building, where red circles had been drawn to highlight the boxes. The governor of the province later claimed that the boxes were not related to the disputed residential elections. In the majority of other cases, however, images act as decorative elements used for asserting the opinion of the bloggers.
While there is the possibility for textual content to be published in the few remaining independent newspapers, in the absence of independent radio or TV stations in Iran audio and video content is bound to be published on the Internet or distributed through cell-phones. The recent presidential elections in Iran saw the elegant use of short videos by the campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate. The campaign produced small-sized video files under the title "The Claims and the Statistics."
In these videos official statistics were used in order to argue against some of the claims made by Mr. Ahmadinejad. The videos were posted on YouTube and later circulated the Web. The campaign also provided compressed copies of the videos to be transferred through Bluetooth connections readily available on the cell phones used by the Iranians.
The Bluetooth feature of the cell phones in Iran was previously known to have become a host for spreading private videos, which showed nudity and pornography. While the exact statistics are not known to the author, it seems safe to describe YouTube as the major service where videos of interest to the Iranian users of the Internet are hosted. These videos are then widely reused in different services such as Facebook and Friendfeed. Links to the videos also appeared in blogs.
Embedding a video in a post is still not common, due to bandwidth restraints. Unless an audio file contains content that is significant, for example the recoding of a discussion leaked from an official meeting, audio files are not commonly used in the Persian blogosphere. The use of audio files is in fact limited to the rare occasion of podcasting or the case of a blogger posting a music file.
It is a well-established norm in the Weblogestan that content should be accessible through a feed. As a matter of fact, it is very common for the readers of a blog to not go to the actual Web address unless they want to post a comment. Even in such occasions, there are a number of practices in place, including writing a comment underneath the post in Google Reader or Facebook where content is reproduced through in the blog feed. Quite apart from being a practical way of managing multiple content, the massive utilization of feeds in the Persian blogosphere is also a solution to the challenge posed by state filtering.
Blogs are easy to block, but in order to block a feed, the government would have to filter the whole server. Daily discussions in the blogosphere reveal that the young population of Iran is in fact familiar with the use of new technologies, such as blog feeds, for circumventing filtering.
One of the key factors in the boom of the blogosphere, is the facilitation of online publication provided through easy-to-use content management systems (CMS) such as Wordpress, Blogger and the like. That impact is, however, negligible when considering the impact of the new methods and tools in the delivery of content to the audience.
As discussed above, the classical browse-and-read approach is not a practical solution for an enthusiastic blog-reader any more. The aggregation and reproduction of the updated content through the use of feed readers has in fact become the path to take for anyone who follows more than a hundred sources, and that is a modest number. Google's feed reader, Google Reader, however, has proved to become more than a feed aggregation service. In fact, Google Reader has become a community-builder, i.e. "The People of Goder" referred to at the beginning of this piece.
When first introduced, one of the main uses of a blog, or Weblog, was to act as a repository of links the author had stumbled upon while surfing the web. Blogs, however, acquired a more distinct character and became sources, rather than connecting nodes. The idea of sharing links with others, now known as readers, did not disappear.
At the dawn of the Persian blogosphere bloggers would attract attention to the content they found interesting by linking to them in their posts. Later more technological savvy bloggers managed to put together daily updated list of links. This list would be displayed as a companion to the blog. Occasionally a blogger would also send out a daily summary of the links they were more interested in. Later, services such as Delicious and Stumble Upon rectified this need by providing the facilities for "tagging" a link.
When Google Reader combined all these features into a user-friendly interface, it was clear that it would conquer the Persian blogosphere very soon, and it did.
In addition to sharing and annotating links, a number of bloggers have in fact migrated to Google Reader, where they communicate with fellow bloggers through comments they leave underneath links. As Google Reader also provides tools for posting content which is not necessarily related to a particular note, Goder is now a stand-alone blogging platform as well. The affair becomes rather confusing when a blogger uses Google Reader to share a note left by another blogger on Google Reader itself. That is not a rarity by any means.
Platforms such as Facebook and Friendfeed are used for distributing the content produced in blogs as well. The latter, Friendfeed, is what many in the Persian blogosphere would rather refer to using the handy Persianized name Ferfer. It is true that a large majority of the Persian bloggers also have an account in a number of social networks, where they are also able to register their blog and have their content pulled up automatically.
This gives the other members of the social network the ability to be informed that new content has been published. Then, they will have the capability of "liking" the content or posting a comment beneath it. A more interested user can also "reshare" the content on their own page.
The two exogenous tools used by the Persian bloggers, i.e. link-sharing and social networks such as Friendfeed, have a third counterpart which has been known to have become a harbour for a passion not generally seen anywhere else in the Weblogestan. Balatarin is one of the most famous Persian language Web sites on the Internet.
"The Highest" is a community of users, now many tens of thousands, where links are posted and voted for, and occasionally buried as well. Users are given credit when the link they post on the Web site becomes "hot," i.e. reaches the front page. Users will then spend their credit to vote for others' links and post comments underneath them. Balatarin has in fact become so pervasive that the state-run media source Fars News embedded a Denial of Service (DoS) attack agent on its front page to target Balatarin.
Using the state
Having had its main domain name stolen away for about a month, Balatarin took the necessary measures and the Web site went back online. Next, a large group of Persian bloggers managed to take down Fars News, the personal blog of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a vast number of other state-run and close-to-state Web sites.
Text, and occasionally video and audio content, published in any of the thousands of Persian blogs, reaches the audience through a complicated maze of services and social networks. In spite of government filtering, low bandwidth connections, prosecution of the bloggers, and other social and technological problems, the Persian blogosphere has been able to thrive into a community of people with different social and political opinions and fields of interest. As a result, blogging has become the technological platform for the Iranian youth to debate a wide array of issues, from the private to the political.
The relationship between the state and the blogosphere has not been one of mutual respect by any means. The state has frequently been forced to react to content published in the blogosphere and the state-run media have had to retract pictures and news items after mistakes and discrepancies were reported in Weblogestan.
In fact, Persian bloggers critical of the state have used every chance to expose and ridicule the ill treatment of news items by the state-run media (a blogger once nicknamed Fars News the "Farce News"). In return, different parts of the state have used their power in the arrest and persecution of the bloggers. The result has been a number of incidents in which bloggers have been harassed and forced to self-censor.
While the state relies heavily on its power to intimidate the Persian blogosphere, Weblogestan has learned to use its advantages in order to survive. Two of these advantages are its dispersed architecture and its maturity in the use of technology. The geographical distribution of Weblogestan means that the government is unable to control a vast group of Persian bloggers. Mature use of technology enables the bloggers to carve out different, sometimes parallel, networks, which the government censor cannot reach.
This article was merely a snapshot of the hallways of the Persian blogosphere. In fact there are numerous sub-networks in Weblogestan that are not touched on here, including flickr, as an established photoblogging social network, and Erepublik, the new strategy game which already hosts hundreds of Iranian users. Analysis of the structure and the inter/intra-connections of these networks, as well as the types of content which circulate in them can provide a better understanding of the impact of blogging in Iranian society.
The fact is, Iran is a country of youth and blogging is what youth everywhere are doing. As a means of communication and social interaction, every blogosphere reflects the interests of its constituency. With Iranian society focused on answering essential questions about its identity, it is no surprise that Weblogestan has become a platform for similar discussions as well. While the government is able to crack down on dissent on the streets of Iran, it had little control over what goes on in people's minds. As the electronic manifestation of Iranian thought, the Persian blogosphere hast become a window to freedom.
© Deutsche Welle 2010
Arash Abadpour works as a programmer in Canada is currently writing his dissertation. He blogs in Persian and English under the name Kamangir (archer).